“Only Revolution Can Bring Justice”
Internationalists in May 31 protest in New York City over the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The following is the edited presentation by Tristán at a June 10 online forum of the Internationalist Group and Revolutionary Internationalist Youth on “Which Way Forward in the Struggle Against Racist Police Terror.”
I want to make two points, the first being the urgent question of reform or revolution and what our slogan, “Only revolution can bring justice,” really means.
The police are the professionals of racist repression and daily enforcers of capitalist law and order – this is a seemingly simple concept, and yet it is difficult for many to fully grasp. The idea that the police exist in order to repress us comes up in sharp contrast against the dominant capitalist ideology that police are here to “protect and serve the community.” Experience with the police in the United States, the endless list of names of those murdered at the hands of the police, all clearly refute this lie. And yet, there exists a contradiction imbued in the nation-wide and international protests – that it’s possible to reform the police. That the police can adopt a function other than as the defenders of private property is illusory, and yet it still permeates protests. An example is when protesters ask police to march and kneel with them, as if this false act of solidarity will prevent their pepper spraying, rubber and bean bag bullets, and their swinging clubs. So, we get a litter of demands to reform, redesign, reimagine, reconstruct, and reinvent the police. All the “re-s.”
For those of us who were involved in the 2014-2015 Black Lives Matter protests against the racist police, many of the demands for reform we heard then, we hear today; and many of the supposed reforms that were implemented at that time, including in Minneapolis after the shooting of Jamar Clark, such as mandatory police body cameras and implicit bias training, did not stop the strangulation of George Floyd and have not diminished the steady number of over 1,700 civilians a year murdered by the police. That’s almost 5 people a day. As of today, 889 people have been murdered by the police this year. Nothing has changed.
Today, the call to “defund the police” is extremely popular. This fundamentally means that the police as an institution should remain because systemic racism can supposedly be abolished under capitalism if you tinker with this, that or the other thing, like its “culture” or budget. Nancy Pelosi just referred to it, positively, as “to shuffle some money around.” Bernie Sanders, however, is hard-lining his opposition even to the term. Instead, his so-called police reform proposal calls for more money for the police and paying them more, while making social workers and EMTs “supplement law enforcement.” He calls this “humanizing the police.”
Many so-called police reform plans call for community oversight or community control of the police – in other words, to make the “community” co-responsible for administering police repression. Many of the demands in the celebrity-endorsed “8 Can’t Wait” campaign detail proposals that essentially amount to this, including a call for the police to police the police. This is absurd. And in fact, such proposals would make up the defense brief for the next cop that murders the next black woman, man, or child.
So, No. 1, the function of the police cannot be reformed away. It is the armed fist of the capitalist state. You can’t take repression out of the police and you can’t take repression out of capitalism. The verbiage about supposedly abolishing the police and abolishing the jails under capitalism is liberal utopian make-believe put out by people who claim the capitalist state can reform itself away. That’s a dangerous illusion. As Marx and Lenin insisted, the capitalist state must be smashed in a workers revolution that sets up a new state of the working class to do away with oppression and lay the groundwork for a stateless, classless society.
New York City police arrest demonstrators on June 3 for violating racist curfew intended to stop protests. More than 2,000 were arrested in week of protests, hundreds held in cramped jails, many for several days.
No. 2, when we say that racist oppression is systemic, that is, part of how this society works. Racism is written into the DNA of U.S. capitalism. Each time there is an explosion of indignation, the ruling class comes up with these cosmetic solutions. When the ruling class declares that “black lives matter,” they whisper in the same breath, “only insofar as black people can be continuously used as an expendable source of labor integrated into the bottom of society to generate capital.” So when the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, chimes in on the slogan, while firing workers who call for a union and personal protective equipment (PPE), you can see how capitalists are always seeking new ways to fool and deceive the oppressed.
Now, what way forward? Anything that makes it more difficult for the police to do what they do – good. Repeal 50-a [the New York state law shielding discipline records of police from public scrutiny]? Good. Do away with qualified immunity [which under Supreme Court rulings has enabled police to kill or injure civilians with impunity]? Good. Cops out of the schools? Hell, yes! Our organization has been in the forefront of fighting for that for decades. Teachers and students everywhere should organize to do it now. I’d also like to ask everyone to learn about the historic struggle that our Brazilian comrades waged in 1996 to remove police from the unions,1 and the workers strikes for the freedom of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and against the racist terror of the police in Brazil, in Mexico, in the U.S.2 That’s internationalism in practice.
So unlike liberals and reformists, revolutionaries tell the truth about what’s needed to uproot racial oppression. That’s a question of revolution. The liberal conception is that change is internal – change within the self and change within the system . . . but please keep the system. This poses another contradiction: rebukes against the police . . . plus calls to vote for the Democratic Party. Let’s be clear. It’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NYPD and in Minneapolis it’s liberal Democratic mayor Jacob Frey’s MPD. These mayors are some of the liberal faces of racist repression.
Revolution requires breaking with the Democrats and all capitalist parties and forming a revolutionary workers party to smash the capitalist system. What kind of revolution? A socialist revolution. A real one. “Only revolution can bring justice” means there is no justice in the capitalist courts and that black liberation can only be realized through a socialist revolution. In other words, eradicating the system of capitalist private property and racist exploitation. Anything other means the cooptation of the mass movement into the Democratic Party just like the initial BLM movement, and continued racist repression.
Secondly, our slogans “George Floyd, Michael Brown, shut the whole system down” and “For workers action against racist terror” both reference the same point; that the key to toppling the racist capitalist system is the power of the multiracial working class, which can literally shut down the system. For example, New York City transit workers in 2005 went on strike, breaking the state’s Taylor Law, which bans strikes by public employees. That strike brought the center of finance capital to a grinding halt for three days. This is what I’m talking about. However, the way that many understand the slogan “shut the system down” is that the spontaneous upsurge of unorganized masses can potentially shut down a highway, bridge or tunnel to attract attention and highlight an issue. These actions can be powerful messages. In fact, my first BLM protest back in 2014 was at Herald Square where protesters stopped traffic on Broadway and then we flooded Times Square.
But what is lacking is revolutionary class-struggle leadership. To get out on the streets to march and protest against racist terror is crucial. But power must be met with power – a stronger power. That is the organized power of the working class under its own revolutionary party. Key to this are black workers. This system doesn’t give a damn about them or their lives, as we’ve witnessed yet again with the coronavirus, which is disproportionately affecting black, Latino and immigrant workers. While treated as expendable, they’re a large part of what’s classed as “essential” workers, because the same system needs their labor. That means power.
In 2017, members of the Class Struggle Workers – Portland (CSWP) and Internationalist Group presented motions in the painters and stage-hands unions for “mobilizing against the clear and present danger that the KKK and other racist organizations provocations pose to us all.”3 The motions passed, and then almost identical ones were passed in other unions. This laid the basis for the June 4, 2017 Portland Labor Against the Fascists mobilization, which brought out 300 unionists and supporters.4 It is part of what inspired the ILWU Local 10 (these are the dock workers in the Bay Area) to pass a motion to shut down the ports and march to stop a fascist provocation a couple of months later, and that sent the fascists scurrying out of town.5 We emphasize that workers strikes must be carried out today against racist cop terror. Trump threatened to deploy the military and Cuomo and de Blasio enacted racist curfews – and the working class should also use its organized power against such police-state measures.
Now, admittedly, I was not a science major, but it is the job of revolutionaries to tap into that potential and latent energy of the working class and help transform it into revolutionary kinetic energy. The capitalist politicians and the reformist groups are constantly injecting the working class and oppressed with political and ideological novocain to numb our consciousness. Instead of riding a never-ceasing pendulum swinging between the Democrats and Republicans, we call on those who want to end racist repression to join us in building a revolutionary workers party organizing for socialist revolution here and around the world. This is a fight for clarity and action, it involves education, which is what we are doing today, and class struggle. I hope many of you will join us in this fight. ■
- 1. See the Internationalist dossier, Class Struggle and Repression in Volta Redonda, Brazil (February 1997).
- 2. See “ILWU, SEPE: First Labor Stoppages for Mumia – Brazil Education Workers Stop Work Demanding: Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” (The Internationalist, May 1999).
- 3. Read the motion at “Portland Painters and Drywall Finishers Say: Mobilize Labor to Stop the KKK and All Racist Groups” on the CSWP website (https://csw-pdx.org/).
- 4. See “Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation,” in The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017.
- 5. See “ILWU Local 10 Moves to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco” and “Fascists Forced to Flee San Francisco – A Significant Victory,” The Internationalist No. 49, September-October 2017.